Stop Press! Burma Opens Up

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If you looked up Burma in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index for 2011-12, you’d get the impression little had changed in a country perennially grouped with North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan at the foot of the rankings.

Burma did, admittedly, manage to climb out of the bottom 10 to 169th out of 179 countries, ahead of China and Vietnam, on the basis that it "showed signs of beginning to carry out reforms including partial amnesties and a reduction in prior censorship". Still, Reporters Without Borders noted that, "it remained largely under the control of an authoritarian government run by former members of the military junta reinvented as civilian politicians".

From the inside, the picture is significantly different: while not exactly incorrect, the assessment fails to encapsulate the sense of optimism that many in Burma’s media industry — and the country more broadly — have developed in the past 10 months, since President Thein Sein, a former general, took office following an election in November 2010 widely derided as a sham.

Of course, this optimism is partly a response, and possibly an overreaction, to the bleakness of the past: for many decades, there was precious little for journalists in Burma to be optimistic about. Following a military coup in 1962, the press was harassed, nationalised and censored to the point that there was only a handful of state-run newspapers left when General Ne Win’s socialist regime was toppled in 1988. The military junta that took power allowed private publications, including weekly journals and monthly magazines, but continued to exercise tight control through the Ministry of Information’s censorship board.

So what has changed? The censorship board remains in place, still checking each article, headline, photo and caption — even ads and classifieds don’t escape the censors’ eye — before the country’s 60 or so news publications go to print. A small number of journalists, mostly from exile media organisations, are still behind bars, although quite a few were released under an amnesty on 13 January.

But for journalists and editors inside Burma, 2011 was a watershed year, one in which they managed to step out of the shadow of exile media organisations and play a more prominent role in the national conversation.

Many previously taboo topics returned to print. The most noticeable change, of course, was the extensive coverage given to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, which in November decided to re-enter the formal political process. Yet the media was also able to report on debates between legislators in the country’s new parliaments, clashes between the government and armed ethnic groups and environmental and social issues.

Recently, when the government cancelled a 4000 megawatt coal power plant planned for the Dawei Special Economic Zone in the country’s south, it highlighted the role local news journals had played in bringing the issue to the public’s attention.

Earlier in the year, many journals were outspoken in their opposition to a controversial China-backed dam, which President Thein Sein eventually halted on 30 September. Journalists have also begun experimenting with op-eds, commentaries and editorials.

"The local media is a constant reminder of how fast things are changing," a friend who works for a non-government organisation told New Matilda recently. "Each week I’m surprised at what I read."

Additionally, about two-thirds of the country’s 400 or so publications — mostly those focusing on fashion, lifestyle, sport, health and business — have shifted from pre-censorship to self-censorship, whereby what they print is reviewed after publication.

Another welcome change has been in the government’s attitude towards the media. The previous military regime called press conferences only rarely, and when it did it made clear to journalists the questions they were expected to ask, even going so far as to hand them out beforehand.

Thein Sein’s government is undoubtedly more media savvy. It has appointed presidential advisers who regularly give interviews to the press and ministers are far more willing to hold unscripted press conferences. Foreign journalists have been invited into the country and in mid-November the President even met with a dozen Burmese journalists on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Bali, answering questions for about 40 minutes. He has publicly acknowledged the important role media plays in democracy but said that with greater press freedom publications also need to take more responsibility for the accuracy of their content.

Burmese journalists have been making the most of the opportunities afforded them under the more relaxed censorship regime but the fact remains that the government could, if it wanted to, roll back the positive steps taken so far.

"Besides [printing]Aung San Suu Kyi’s photo … how deeply can investigators write about the change of political landscape in Myanmar?" Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based exile publication, told Foreign Policy recently. "It’s a brief moment of freedom, and then they tighten the screw again."

This seems unlikely to happen while Thein Sein and his government are in power, however. Recently, the Ministry of Information finished drafting a new media law that it says will enshrine the rights of journalists and eventually see the censorship board dissolved, replaced by a press council. Daily private newspapers are also likely to make a return for the first time in many decades.

The law could be submitted for approval during the current session of parliament, which began sitting on January 26, and will likely be the subject of intense debate and scrutiny by both government-aligned and opposition lawmakers. Worryingly, there appears to have been little consultation with journalists and editors.

The text of the law matters less than its application, however. How much real freedom will journalists be afforded? No one is under any illusions that censorship will be an issue for years to come. The hope though is that Burma’s press one day resembles its more liberal neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, like Indonesia and the Philippines.

There are a few reasons to be optimistic. Burma’s media industry is diverse, with a large number of publications owned by a wide variety of proprietors. There is no single dominant player and so far the leading figures in the business community — the "cronies" who prospered under the former military government — have shown little interest in the sector. Unlike in Cambodia, papers are mostly free of political affiliations and biases. Educated Burmese have a strong interest in news and the media and the journalists that I meet are mostly young, relatively well educated and committed to their profession.

One major issue has been the lack of journalism training available inside the country but Burma’s newfound openness has prompted a number of non-government organisations to begin discreetly looking at ways to rectify this. Just this week, a media association set up by the previous military regime held a workshop in Yangon on the future of press freedom in Burma, at which a number of foreign and exiled Burmese journalists gave presentations. It would have been virtually impossible to hold a similar event just three or six months ago.

Like many of the issues that define Burma’s future, the picture on media freedom should become clearer over the course of 2012. But if last year is any guide, Burma won’t be languishing in 169th place when Reporters Without Borders releases its press freedom index in years to come.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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